The Bassa

Bassa

The Bassa are one of the main 28 ethnic groups in Liberia, living mainly in the Marshall and River Cess Territory. The Bassa speak a Western Kru language, which belongs to the Atlantic branch of the Niger-Congo phylum. The last noted census of them in 1991 states that there were more than 350,000, most of whom were rural farmers.

The Kru peoples moved into the rain forests of West Africa, most likely between 1000 BCE and 300 CE. Ironworking seemed to have spread into the region in the first millennium CE, and the economics shifted from yam production to sorghum and rice.

Others moved into the rain forest, following the paths of the more ancient Kru speakers. Bassa language and identity emerged as they moved further to the west and eventually into the area where they are found today. A separate identity based on language shifts gave rise to Bassa identity.

The Bassa remain notably small farmers producing mainly cassava, yams, and plantains. While some have converted to Christianity or Islam, many have remained followers of their traditional religion like most of the other ethnic populations of the country. Only the Americo-Liberians are majority Christians.

The Bassa have their own script to write their language called Vah. It was devised in 1910 by Syracuse University graduate Dr. Thomas Narvin Flo Lewis, who began teaching it once he returned to Liberia. Dr. Lewis had a printing press made in Germany and began printing materials in using the Vah alphabet in 1920.

Traditional Bassa political organization consisted of several chiefdoms of closely related lineages. Each chiefdom was further divided into numerous smaller clans. There were three main chiefdoms that coincide today with the political divisions of Grand Bassa, Marshall Territory, and River Cess Territory.The founding of modern Liberia and the return of American slaves to Africa starting in 1822 had important consequences for the non-slave population of the country.

At first the newly created town of Monrovia was the main base for the new community, and disease claimed many of the new inhabitants. By 1840, the popu-lation numbered only 17,000, but they were able to declare their independence by 1847. The result was that the Bassa began to build a number of strong villages along the Atlan-tic coast. The Bassa and other Kru speakers had to confront the growing Americo-Liberians as they began to expand areas of control.

Following the fall of President William Tubman in 1980, the Americo-Liberians lost their long-term control over Liberian politics. His successor Samuel Doe was from the Krahn, while his main rival, Charles Taylor, was backed mainly by the Gio and Mano, who are closely related to the Bassa. As a result of the long, bloody civil war, thousands of civilians were killed and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes During the civil war, ethnic affiliation became important as a person’s political orientation was seen as support for one side or another.

In 1996, opposition leader Charles Taylor won the presidential elections, and over 150,000 Liberians had lost their lives. Taylor was forced to leave the capital in 2003, and subsequently multi-party elections have been held. The country seems to be on the road to recovery with foreign economic aid and investments.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

“Bassa Alphabet.” http://www.omniglot.com/writing/bassa.htm (accessed May 2, 2010).

Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: Univer-sity Press of Virginia, 2002.

Olukoju, Ayodeji Oladimeji. Culture and Cus-toms of Liberia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006.

Stokes, Jamie. “Bassa.” In Encyclopedia of the Peoples of Africa and the Middle East.New York: Facts on File, 2009.